Work faster, not harder… with technology

By David Rogers

As published in Motor Age Magazine

Despite unprecedented access to tools, training, systems, processes, and help, there’s no efficiency revolution taking place in the auto repair industry. Before making the investment, begin by refining processes.

These are incredible times to be a shop owner.

Techs have never had more information closer at hand for fixing vehicles. Service advisors have never had more access to parts sourcing solutions. There have never been this many software applications or diagnostic tools or online forums literally at the fingertips of everyone in the shop.

Despite unprecedented access to tools and training and systems and processes and help, there’s no efficiency revolution taking place in the auto repair industry. The average shop is paying for a half-dozen subscriptions each month, all explicitly promising the same undelivered thing. All the while, the hours billed by technicians stay steady, the effectiveness of the service advisors remains flat, and the amount of money spent by the owner keeps increasing.

We live in a golden age of technology, and we’re wasting it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Shops CAN use technology to work faster not harder. But the only way to get the efficiency revolution we all want in this industry is to see technology as a means, not an end…and that using technology is an activity, not a result.

The telltale signs are everywhere.

For some shops, it’s multiple monitors sitting on the front desk in front of each service advisor. For others, it’s the flicker of the technician’s computer screens as they toggle between multiple website subscriptions trying to dig for what they need. It’s unnecessary personnel. It’s unneeded hardware.

In shop after shop, owners have been sold a vision that technology can solve problems, but that’s not really the truth. What they mean is “technology can solve this problem,” with “this” being the one thing solved by the software or hardware a company is selling.

Which makes sense, of course. It’s natural to want to solve one problem at a time, preferably the one that you’re dealing with right now. If technology can make it easier to handle part and core returns, and all it takes is a new machine to do the work, then why not?

Of course, seven “solutions” later, and your shop needs a dedicated AP clerk to run the parts and core return technology, and a dedicated AR clerk to operate the billing technology, and a dedicated parts manager to control the new inventory technology, and suddenly it’s technology that is running your shop instead of the other way around.

This kind of thing happens everywhere in a shop. It happens to the numbers and reports that shop owners use to manage the shop every day. It happens to the hardware we have to upkeep to run all of the new systems and processes. And it happens to the technology we use to try to make our jobs easier.

We’ve fought this kind of bloat in our own shop! Technology gave us an unprecedented understanding of our metrics and allowed us to crunch the shop and team’s performances into dozens of numbers. We then tried to use all of these numbers in our daily decision-making. You can imagine how poorly this went!

Rather than being empowered by all of the new insight created by technology, we created paralysis. We let unimportant data hinder our ability to make good decisions, and worse, we inflicted that same paralysis on our managers. Ultimately, despite all of its promise, technology created far more problems than it alleviated.

Does that mean I’m anti-technology? Of course not!

Technology has empowered my shop to maximize efficiency and bill more hours on every car. And it’s allowed all my technicians to earn more than $100,000, putting my shop in great shape during this worsening tech shortage.

The problem is technology without process.

Simply buying a second monitor for a service advisor doesn’t allow them to get more done. Simply buying a subscription to a new labor guide doesn’t make techs complete better inspections or writeups.

In fact, in both cases, investing in these technologies and neglecting processes can make the employee less efficient. If the service advisor is constantly hunting for a window, or the tech is constantly toggling between programs, then technology is a hindrance, not a help.

In the case of technology leading to too many numbers and decision-making paralysis, the solution was refining the process: these are the numbers our shop needs to pull, who is responsible for pulling them, and how we’re going to use them as a team. Once the process was in place, technology allowed the process to be executed smarter and faster.

It’s the same way for new hardware and software for service advisors and technicians. Is the process clear about how they complete inspections, estimates, and advisements? Do they clearly understand what they need to monitor, how often, and what actions to take? Answering these questions will definitively lead to eliminating unnecessary systems and combining processes, all of which improves productivity.

If the need for the new hardware or software exists after the process is refined, there’s a good chance that adding the technology will lead to working smarter, not harder.

The next time you consider adding additional infrastructure – whether hardware, software, or even personnel – start with the process. Is everyone trained on their clear expectations? Have you eliminated unnecessary steps, extra data, bottlenecks, and hurdles?

Remember, every unnecessary system and step and process you eliminate will lead to your techs billing more hours and your advisors growing sales.

In spite of everything, I’m a huge believer in the power of technology. My own shop is proof of that. The technology emerging today has the potential to transform how repair shops operate.

But nothing replaces the need for good processes. It’s the secret to eliminating stress, increasing productivity, and working smarter – not harder – with technology.